In the past, we have traveled from country to country and explored some of the eeriest and weirdest mysteries hidden in their sordid histories. But now we are going into the distant past, all the way back to Ancient Greece, to take a look at some of the most peculiar secrets and enigmas that they have to offer.
10. Did Euxitheos Kill Herodes?
Classic Greece produced ten public speakers so admired for their skill and eloquence that they became known as the Ten Attic Orators. The earliest of them was Antiphon of Rhamnus, a 5th-century BC statesman who put his rhetorical abilities to use in the court of law, thus providing us with some of the first recorded instances of legal cases presented in front of a democratic jury.
One such oration is titled “On the Murder of Herodes” and it furnishes us with an ancient Greek murder mystery. One day, two men named Euxitheos and Herodes left together on a ship from Mytilene, bound for Ainos. A storm forced the ship to dock in an unnamed harbor, at which point the two men sought shelter. Exactly how many people were inside this shelter is unknown, but with nothing else to do, the men passed the night by getting drunk. The next day – no more Herodes. He had disappeared and could not be found after two days of searching.
Eventually, once the weather cleared, Euxitheos continued his voyage, but, upon returning to Mytilene, he was met with a charge of murder brought on by Herodes’s relatives. He was taken to Athens to stand trial.
Unfortunately, Antiphon’s oration does not include the verdict, so we will never know how Herodes disappeared and if Euxitheos was found guilty of his murder or not.
9. What Happened to Athena Parthenos?
For hundreds of years, the statue of Athena Parthenos was one of the most prized monuments in Athens, if not all of Greece, positioned in a place of honor inside the inner chamber of the Parthenon. It was a chryselephantine sculpture, meaning that it was made out of wood layered with gold and ivory, and stood almost 40 feet in height. The construction of this marvelous statue was attributed to Phidias, who spent almost a decade working on it before dedicating it sometime around 438 BC.
Unfortunately, we don’t know what happened to this masterpiece of classic Greek art. We know that around 150 years after its construction, an Athenian tyrant named Lachares had to strip some of the gold sheets off to pay his soldiers. We also know that around 165 BC the statue was damaged in a fire, but was later repaired.
After that, details get a bit murky and we have only hypotheses as to what happened to it. Since the city was sacked several times by Germanic and Slavic tribes, it is possible that the statue was destroyed on one such occasion. However, since the worship of Athena had also fallen out of favor by that point, it is possible that the people of Athens themselves plundered the sculpture for its valuable materials.
There is one later account that mentions its existence during the 10th century AD, claiming that it was moved to Constantinople. If this is true, then the statue of Athena Parthenos could have survived until the 15th century, when the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople.
8. Why Was the Atlantis Trilogy Never Finished?
Most people have probably heard of Atlantis, the mythical island that sunk into the ocean, but they might not know that the origin of this story was Plato, the Athenian philosopher. According to Plato, thousands and thousands of years before his time, Atlantis was this giant island, which was rich and powerful and possessed a mighty navy, unlike anything the world had ever seen. With this navy, Atlantis conquered all of its neighbors, then northern Africa, and made it into the Mediterranean as far as Italy.
But the Atlantean armada proved to be no match for Athens, who took them on alone, beat them soundly, and then liberated all the territories enslaved by their foes. Following this defeat, Atlantis lost the favor of the gods and suffered a massive earthquake, followed by floods that submerged the entire island into the ocean.
Obviously, nobody is suggesting any of that actually happened. The mystery here lies not with what Plato wrote, but what he didn’t write. He announced that he would do a whole trilogy on Atlantis, but he never did, even though he had plenty of time. Plato wrote the first book on the subject, Timaeus, circa 360 BC, and he then had 12-13 years to finish his trilogy. He followed it up with a second book, Critias, which has no ending and breaks off mid-sentence. This begs the question, why would…
7. Was There a Real Labyrinth?
Speaking of famous Greek myths, let’s move on to the legend of the labyrinth and the deadly Minotaur that lurked within. Here’s a quick refresher course if you forgot the story. King Minos of Crete had Daedalus construct a complex maze-like structure called the labyrinth, which contained the half-bull, half-man monster known as the Minotaur. Every nine years, Minos made King Aegeus of Athens give him seven boys and seven girls who would be sent inside the labyrinth to be eaten by the Minotaur. And this continued for decades, until the hero of the story, Theseus, entered the labyrinth and slain the Minotaur.
We’re going to go out on a limb here and say that the Minotaur wasn’t real, but the same cannot be said about the labyrinth, at least not definitively. Although no tangible signs of its existence have ever been uncovered, it seems that every few centuries, there is renewed interest in the labyrinth from people who believe that the legend might have been inspired by a real structure, most likely located near Knossos. In ancient times, both Roman and Ptolemaic Egypt writers treated the labyrinth as being real. Then, almost 1500 years later, Byzantine historian Nikephoros Gregoras wrote that the labyrinth was a vast man-made cave system carved out of limestone, but located near the ancient city of Gortyn, not Knossos.
During the late 19th century, British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans conducted major excavations on the island of Crete and discovered the long-lost Minoan civilization. Although initially a skeptic, he came to believe that the labyrinth was real, placing it again near Knossos. And just a decade ago, a new archaeological team uncovered underground tunnels in an old stone quarry, near Gortyn this time, once again opening up the debate over the existence of the labyrinth.
6. What Is the Socratic Problem?
You have all probably heard of Socrates. Today, the guy is considered the father of Western philosophy, but it’s a lucky thing that people even remember his name, let alone his accomplishments. That’s because Socrates never bothered to write anything down. Undoubtedly, he would have completely faded into obscurity, ever mere decades after his death if not for his students who carried on and expounded on his ideas, giving credit to the man who started it all. However, because he is only known indirectly, it makes it hard to distinguish between “Socrates the character” and “Socrates the real historical figure.” Sometimes, various accounts of the philosopher are not only incongruous with each other, but downright contradictory.
This has given birth to what scholars refer to as the “Socratic problem.” Men like Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes are our main sources for Socrates, but each one offers his own interpretation of the philosopher, not an accurate picture. When it comes to the real Socrates, the only thing we know is that we know nothing.
5. What Was the Meaning of the Delphic Epsilon?
In ancient times, Delphi was a sacred site that attracted countless visitors from all over the world who traveled far and wide to hear the prophecies of the Pythia, the Oracle of Delphi. The priestess served her customers inside the most imposing structure at Delphi, the Temple of Apollo. And as visitors approached the temple, they saw that the pediment of the building bore an unexpected symbol – the letter E or epsilon. But what did it mean?
This question has puzzled historians and philosophers since ancient times, showing that the true meaning of the Delphic Epsilon was never common knowledge. Plutarch was the first to talk about it, writing a whole treatise titled On the ‘E’ at Delphi. He offered several possible explanations, although he remained uncertain of its significance. He did provide us with a history of the symbol. The earliest one came from the 6th century BC and was made of wood. That one burned down and was replaced with one made of bronze which, in turn, was replaced by one made of gold, which still existed during Plutarch’s time, almost 700 years later. The fact that the symbol kept getting replaced and upgraded, as well as its positioning above the entrance both suggested that it had an important meaning, we just don’t know what it was.
Nowadays, the symbol has been co-opted by conspiracy theorists who have linked it to aliens, secret societies, and secret alien societies. But truth be told, there’s a lot about the Oracle at Delphi that has been kept secret, and it seems like the Delphic E is destined to remain a mystery.
4. Did the Wife Poison Her Husband?
We return to Antiphon and his speeches to explore another ancient Greek murder mystery, this time a suspected case of poisoning. Both the victim and his alleged killer are unnamed in the case, but they were husband and wife. One day, the man dined with a friend of his named Philoneos and both fell ill soon after. They died a few days apart, but not before the man had a chance to tell his son from his first marriage that he had been poisoned and to instruct him to punish his killer.
The son was the one who brought the charge of murder against his stepmother. The speech indicates that this happened years after the poisoning had occurred, suggesting that the son was still a young boy at the time.
The way the prosecution presented the case, the wife didn’t actually do the poisoning herself but instead tricked Philoneos’s mistress into doing it. The other woman thought she was administering a love potion to restore his desire for her. Since that woman was a slave, she did not receive the same fair hearing as the wife. Instead, she was tortured until she confessed her guilt and then put to death. As for the accused, the speech, once again, omits the verdict, so her fate was lost to history.
3. What Happened to the Statue of Zeus?
When it comes to Greek sculptures, there was no work greater than the Statue of Zeus at Olympia. It was, after all, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Standing 40 feet tall, it depicted the king of the gods sitting on his throne, with his scepter in one hand and a statue of Nike in the other, and an olive garland crowning his head. Like the statue of Athena Parthenos, this was a chryselephantine statue covered with ebony and sheets of gold, and it’s not surprising since it was made by the same guy – Phidias.
Unfortunately, also like the statue of Athena, its ultimate fate remains a mystery as the statue of Zeus simply disappears from the historical record. According to the Roman historian Suetonius, Caligula wanted to have the statue brought to Rome, so he could chop off Zeus’s head and replace it with his own. The emperor was murdered before he had a chance to do this, but whether or not the statue was moved is unknown.
Assuming the statue survived Caligula’s plan, then it could have been destroyed during the reigns of Theodosius I or II. They were both Christian emperors who rallied against the old traditions and had many pagan temples closed down, even demolished. Many believe that one of them had the Statue of Zeus transported to Constantinople to be burned down. If, somehow, it still survived, then it likely met its end during the 6th century, when the temple at Olympia was destroyed by earthquakes.
2. Was Homer Real?
The name “Homer” will be familiar to a lot of people and we’re not talking about the one who works in sector 7G of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. No, we’re talking about the original Homer, who is regarded as the founder of ancient Greek literature, thanks mainly to his two epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. However, there is an ongoing debate about whether or not Homer even existed.
This is known as the Homeric Question and it stems from the fact that he lived a lot earlier than people might think and that almost nothing is known about his actual life. If there was a real Homer, he would have been around during the 8th century BC, which is hundreds of years before Greece became the cultural center of the world and had great poets and playwrights such as Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus. Even in their own time, Homer was an ancient figure from a bygone age.
The Homeric Question is actually two-fold. The first part is whether Homer was real or not, but the second is if he actually wrote the epics he is known for. He would have lived at a time when Greek writing was still in its infancy and stories were mostly passed down orally, so he could have simply been a bard who retold tales that had been around for ages. There are many scholars who consider that the Iliad and the Odyssey are hundreds, maybe even a thousand years older than we believe.
And then, of course, there are those who don’t consider Homer to be an actual person. They see him as either an amalgamation of real writers or a symbolic spirit that the Greeks gave to their most beloved works of literature whose true author was unknown.
1. What Happened During the Eleusinian Mysteries?
The Greeks were awfully fond of their secret rituals and, perhaps, none were more famous than the Eleusinian Mysteries, the rites observed for almost 2000 years to honor Demeter, goddess of agriculture.
According to the myth, Hades fell in love with Persephone, Demeter’s daughter, so he kidnapped her and took her into the underworld. Due to her grief, the goddess stopped looking after the crops, causing widespread droughts and famines throughout the world. Eventually, Zeus forced Hades to return Persephone to Demeter, but the deal was that she had to come back to the underworld annually and spend part of the year with Hades. During that time, the ground became cold and hard and nothing would grow, and that’s how the seasons came to be.
During Demeter’s search for her daughter, she arrived at the city of Eleusis. Disguised as an old woman, she served as nurse for the queen’s boy. Eventually, she revealed her true self and the people of Eleusis built Demeter a temple and started holding the Mysteries there to celebrate the reunion of mother and daughter which made the crops grow again.
That’s the mythological side of the ritual, which is a lot better known than the real side since the people who participated took their vows of secrecy very seriously. Two Mysteries took place every year – the Lesser Mysteries in the spring and the Greater Mysteries in September. The tradition started with the initiates walking from Athens to Eleusis. Everyone could observe the procession, but as far as what went on inside the temple, that was strictly hush-hush.
There would be fasting, purification rites, sacrifices, and offerings. That’s the standard stuff, but some scholars think the ritual could have even involved human sacrifice, as a maiden would be killed to symbolize the plight of Persephone. The true extent of the Eleusinian Mysteries will forever remain hidden.